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Learning from the best – discussing travel, writing and self-care with Sarah Barrell

It was 6 pm and my usual Canary Wharf view has just become replaced by a magical white curtain of falling snow. I have just finished my Skype coaching session after a full day of working from home and looking at the weather outside I felt grateful for not having to leave the house. I had wanted to attend a Travel Writing Masterclass held that day by the National Geographic Traveller (UK), but have by that point reluctantly accepted that the tickets had long been sold out. I was about to cozy up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a good book when I heard the beeping sound of an incoming Facebook notification. I couldn’t believe my luck! Because of the snow one of the attendees has just cancelled  and there was one last ticket left for the NGT Masterclass I so badly wanted to attend! Without giving it much thought I booked the ticket and ran out of the house, zipping up and putting on make up as I hurried to Covent Garden. I didn’t notice the cold, didn’t mind the snowflakes crushing coldly into my face. The universe gave me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

After the inspiring evening with NGT’s writers and editors, I gathered up the courage to walk up to Sarah Barrell, their Associate Editor and Travel Writer. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah once before, at the London School of Journalism where she was giving lecture on travel writing, yet the idea of bothering her with my questions still made me uneasy. Despite feeling shy, I decided to approach her. I thought someone who has traveled to so many countries and has built an incredibly successful career around her life’s passion would be a wonderful person to write about for my January travel inspiration series. To my great surprise and even greater pleasure, Sarah was kind enough to agree to do an interview for TravelPsyched!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

TravelPsyched: So, Sarah, you’re one of the most inspiring travel writers in this country and your articles have been published in all the leading newspapers and magazines, like The Times, The Guardian, Wanderlust, Marie Claire, or National Geographic Traveller (UK), and you also held a few editorial positions in some of these great papers. How did you get on this path and is this what you have always wanted to do in life?

Sarah Barrell: I think in some way – yes. I always loved writing and reading as a way to escape.  As a kid I picked adventure books, whether that was “The Famous Five”, “Swallows and Amazons” or more magical stuff. At school, I wasn’t that good at anything else – maths, science, whatever. So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that I ended up studying English and publishing at university, and working on university magazines and radio stations. Travel writing didn’t really happen until I realised I was pretty much constantly travelling. From the age of 16 I had always had a job so was able to save a little bit of money, and used this to fund trips. Once I graduated from university I got into a cycle of doing any job I could in order to fund my travels because I’d become addicted. Getting a “proper” job became something that was on the horizon but never quite happening. Then, a radio editor said to me: “why don’t you just go travelling properly rather than going backwards and forwards?”

I had toyed with the idea of working in radio for a while, and finally decided there wasn’t really any future in it. I didn’t want to be a DJ, and while I loved programmes such as “Excess Baggage”, opportunities for making radio documentaries and features were thin on the ground. So I went travelling for a couple of years, and when I came back I was lucky enough to find that one of my former university friends had started work at The Independent, originally as an intern, then as a freelance on the Arts Desk. The Independent on Sunday was just launching a standalone travel section headed up by a brilliant writer, called Jeremy Atiyah. I got work experience on the desk and ended up hanging around like a bad smell, making myself useful, doing some filing, writing bits and pieces, researching, fact checking, doing boring radio listings. All the stuff journalists (we’re talking mid-nineties), generally did to earn their stripes.

Eventually I got myself a job, and I learnt almost everything I now know about travel writing from that experience. I could write but it was a bit of an ambition over talent situation. I learnt everything, really,  by reading and editing other people’s copy. When I read something good, I looked at how was constructed and asked myself, how am I doing this differently? I was also lucky to have great advice from my editor, who went through my copy with a red pen. Brutal but invaluable. I learnt enormous amounts in the time on that desk and after a few years became Deputy Travel Editor, and Travel Editor when Jeremy Atiyah left. However… I didn’t really like being chained to the desk, and that’s what it ended up being, so I eventually left in early 2000 to go freelance, and more or less haven’t looked back.

T: Were there any specific personality characteristics that you’ve had or skills that you’ve learnt along the way that really enabled you to get where you are right now?

SB: You’ve got to be really thick-skinned, especially when people turn down your pitches or ignore you, because that’s just standard, unfortunately. But I think you need to understand how busy everyone is, it’s not something to be taken personally. You have to be extremely self-motivated to keep the ball rolling because nobody is going to be doing that for you. It’s a highly competitive area. You have to keep generating ideas, keep generating pitches. And more than anything, you need an insatiable hunger for the world. After doing this for almost twenty years you might think I’d get bored. But the more you do it, the more addictive it becomes and the more you realise there is to see out there. So: you need that drive that makes you want to do it more than anything else, as it’s really not a sensible way to earn a living [laughs].

T: You’ve been traveling for so many years and you’ve been to so many wonderful, and I’m sure beautiful, places. What’s the most inspiring place that you’ve visited?

SB: That’s a really hard question to answer. It’s the one I have to ask interviewees sometimes and it’s a pretty impossible question, for me at least. I’m a very fidgety person, as I think many travel writers are, and there’s usually nothing that’s inspired me as much as the last place I’ve visited. Especially if it’s somewhere new. You’re full of the smells, the flavours, the things you didn’t know about it, the things you’d wish to learn more about. And this for me is most inspirational. It’s finding myself charmed and curious and seduced by something. I mean, I have favourite places – I love Bali for its utter sensual overload, seductive colours, pungent smells. I love Italy and Greece because I lived and worked there. I love the buzz of New York, that never gets old. But I think if we’re talking about places that inspire me, it’s usually the last place I’ve been. It’s very rare that I would go somewhere and come away without having that travel bug reignited.

T: I think travelling can often be a wonderful way not just to reignite that hunger for travel, but also a way to develop yourself, to learn more about yourself when we find ourselves in new situations, among new people that often challenge us. What would be the most important lesson that you’ve learn during your travels?

SB: I think you have to be very open. I think the minute you start travelling with a preconceived idea of what you want to get out of the place, you’re going to end up having a disappointing experience. I think you have to have a sensible idea about where you’re going, to be safe and understand what the destination is basically about. But ultimately you need to be open about itineraries. I try to plan as little as I can, without wasting opportunities. I wouldn’t want to miss out on something important just because I hadn’t known about it. But in general, I don’t like to be pinned down too much. You have to be open, really want to talk to people and meet people. I think all those wonderful experiences, the stories, the leads, the quirky things you find out – for me, they almost always come from unexpected conversations.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is the innate kindness of people. It was always been something I took for granted as a teenager and twenty-something. I think I ran around the world like an overexcited puppy, expecting everyone to be the same and surprisingly I’ve never really been kicked back. I’ve been lucky I guess but I think if you approach someone with kindness, usually you get that response back. Obviously there’s been a few cases when that didn’t happen but I’ve never had a significantly bad experience. I’m always amazed how similar people are. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a hut in the Serengeti or a skyscraper in New York, the same things basically drive us, and I truly believe (despite the way the world can seem from a distance), that there’s an infinite kindness in humans.

T: You’ve talked about the infinite kindness and how you’ve never been kicked back, but what would be the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome while traveling?

SB: I think sometimes travelling can be quite lonely. It can be hard when you’re travelling solo. Some days you just don’t feel like it, you’re tired, you’re jetlagged, having a down day, feeling a bit more introverted. To keep yourself motivated all the time can be quite challenging, and I think you need to learn to acknowledge and accept when you ‘re tired and low on energy. And just let that happen – don’t  beat yourself up too much about it. But also try to find a way to re-inspire yourself. That might be through reading some great travel writing or thinking: “where do I really want to go next?”, and trying to fire up that enthusiasm again. So I think being self-motivated is the toughest thing to master, and that comes down to something as practical as being able to fund your trips: making travel writing pay.  I mean, in all honesty, it doesn’t always work,. It’s a very rare person who can fund their way around the world exclusively by travel writing.

T: Do you have any tried and tested ways of looking after yourself to keep that energy up? Either while you’re travelling or between your travels?

SB: Yes, I do. I’m not brilliant at always doing it but for me it’s finding the time to go outside. If I spend too much time indoors, whether it’s an airport, a hotel or an office, I can start feeling a bit trapped and frustrated. But I’ve learnt that it doesn’t take that much to pick me up again. Just going for a walk or a run or a swim; even better if I can do an outdoors yoga class. Yoga is that really works for me, although I don’t do enough of it! Outdoor swimming also really works for me, makes me feel better about myself. It’s also vitally important to get enough sleep (I don’t), and to not try and pack in too much in.

I have also started to travel with particular items. I never used to understand this habit in travelers, and found it a bit sad, this need for a sort of a security-blanket. But as I’ve got older, particularly when I travel by myself, I have come to realise the importance of having little things that make me feel at home wherever I am. For example, I always travel with a particular brand of tea, as tea often tastes rubbish in other countries, the water is different, the teabags are often not very good. I also travel with a particular type of throat spray. The air conditioning on planes can leave you with a sore throat, and I’ve got a spray that seems to banish that quickly. I always having little care package of books, DVDs, downloads and music that I love. More often than not, I go away with these things but I don’t use them as I’m too busy  but just having them there for that downtime or a delay, or when I’m in need of some mood enhancement is invaluable. I never, ever travel without a ton of downloaded music. Music really makes me feel better about myself, it’s a simple, quick fix.

T: Thank you. The final question, then is about the advice you would give someone who would like to make their life all about travel?

SB: You have to ask yourself why you want to do this? If it’s got anything with money or becoming famous in whatever way, don’t do it. I think if you want to do it because you find you can’t not do it, then you’re probably in the right place. It’s something you have to be a bit addicted to. If you have any other skills, my advice is to use them elsewhere, because it’s tough to stay alive as a travel writer. If you have the option to become a doctor or a lawyer, my suggestion would be to fulfill that, and then use your spare time and money to travel and write. Travel writing is a little like being in love. If you can’t not be, then you’re probably in the right job.


You can find out more about Sarah on her page and blog:

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